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  Moe Grzelakowski '88
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Moe Grzelakowski '88

Mother Leads Best
Kellogg author explains why moms have the leadership skills companies need most

By Rebecca Lindell

What can a demanding 2-year-old, a struggling schoolchild or a rebellious teenager teach a woman about running a major corporation?

Everything, according to Moe Grzelakowski '88, author of a new book exploring the impact motherhood has on a woman's leadership skills.

"Motherhood has helped women executives change from good leaders into great ones," Grzelakowski argues in her book, Mother Leads Best: 50 Women Who Are Changing the Way Organizations Define Leadership.

"Think about the requirements for leadership today. We want a mixture of toughness and softness, of strength and flexibility," she says. "Motherhood, far better than any training program, helps bring out this ideal mixture."

It's often assumed that women lose their edge when they become mothers. But Grzelakowski's research suggests just the opposite: that rather than softening their focus, the experience of raising children seems to improve women's ability to lead and inspire employees.

Grzelakowski interviewed scores of the nation's highest-achieving women for her book, including CEOs, CFOs, vice presidents, general managers and entrepreneurs. All had at least one child; most had two or three. And all acknowledged that the skills they had gained as mothers played a critical role in their development as leaders.

Mother Leads Best  

"Being a mom added balance to their lives," Grzelakowski says. "It enabled them to put their work in perspective; it made them better human beings. They were no less driven after becoming moms, but they were much better able to channel their drive into productive effort."

The women profiled in Mother Leads Best were already on the fast track to leadership well before they became mothers. Tough, confident and assertive, most had reached the senior executive level before having kids.

But to reach the very top, leaders paradoxically must soften certain aspects of the style that served them so well on the way up, Grzelakowski contends. Workaholism, perfectionism and competitiveness can undermine the trust leaders need to inspire employees. Great leadership often requires empathy and a lack of ego - traits motherhood develops in spades.

"The change from being ambitious to thinking about others really comes back to enhance your work life," Grzelakowski says. "You start caring about other people more than you care about yourself. That is so important to leadership, and having children forces women to do this."

That was the case for Ellen Kullman '83, group vice president of DuPont Safety and Protection Group and a mother of three. One of the 50 women profiled in the book, Kullman says she is a "much different" leader now than before she had children.

At the time her first child was born in 1990, Kullman was a director at DuPont, responsible for 800 employees and several hundred million dollars in revenue. She had developed a direct style of management that was more focused on getting the job done than building a team.

"Although I was pretty inclusive, if there was a disagreement, I would make the decision the way I thought best," Kullman recalls. "I didn't always take the time to see the issue from other people's perspectives. Luckily, my kids got my attention on this issue. It made me put myself in others' shoes. While I do not always alter my beliefs, I did alter my behavior. Now, I think about disagreements, understand them, and then make clear choices."

Today Kullman leads a team of five vice presidents and general managers. "They are very independent, strong-willed, accomplished people," she says. "Quite frankly, they often do things in a different way than I would do. My job is to let them go and to coach them so they are successful. Just like kids, we all have to learn. Leaders have to give their team members some rope and see what they do with it."

Letting go, gaining more

An enhanced ability to delegate is common among mother-leaders, according to Grzelakowski.

"These women let go of so much when they had children: the need to control everything, to overachieve, to be a perfectionist," Grzelakowski says. "The chaos has actually been good for them. They begin to realize, 'I'm handling all this, and I'm good at it.' They wind up being more in control of themselves, while letting go of controlling everyone else."

Marla Gottschalk '93, president and COO of The Pampered Chef and another subject in Grzelakowski's book, agrees. Before she had her two children, now 8 and 10, Gottschalk says she had a single-minded devotion to her career.

"I didn't hesitate to stay at the office until 8 or 9 p.m. because I felt this need to be fully in control of every aspect of my work," she says. "My children really changed things. When there's more going on, you see the need to prioritize. It makes you say, 'I see 10 balls in the air and five of them are not important. I'm going to focus on the five that are really going to make a difference and give the remaining five to the people working for me.'

"Nine times out of 10, they will do a better job of handling them than you will."

Grzelakowski's premise that "mother leads best" grew out of her experiences as a high-achieving woman in the male-dominated tech industry. At 30, she was one of AT&T's youngest senior managers and pregnant with her first child. She had also earned the nickname "Ayatollah" from her co-workers for her hard-charging style.

In the months and years after she returned from maternity leave, however, Grzelakowski found herself displaying new leadership traits. "I began to view my teams as extended family and, like the mother I was, tried to protect them at all costs," she says. "This didn't just mean helping them keep their jobs, but helping them learn and grow and build their self-esteem."

Grzelakowski's teams thrived under her maternal leadership style. She, in turn, was rewarded with increased professional stature. "AT&T even asked me to train the other executives on the team how to care," she says.

She went on to hold senior executive positions at Motorola and Dell and ran several multi-billion-dollar businesses while raising her two sons. She later launched a CEO retreat program, WISDOMQUEST, to provide CEOs with a week of quiet and reflection.

During one of these retreats, Grzelakowski began to observe how many of the most skillful leaders were also mothers. As she explored the impact one role had on the other, she found her ideas corroborated by many top corporate men and women. "What started out as a hunch turned out to be the case for everyone I spoke to," she says.

Grzelakowski believes corporations have yet to fully tap the talents of women with maternal leadership skills. She urges companies to support long-term maternity leaves for women, noting that many women feel torn between their careers and their families immediately after their children are born. But by accommodating women's need for increased flexibility during the early child-rearing years, companies can earn their loyalty and reap the benefits of their enhanced management skills upon their return.

Parenthood "is a leadership course they are sending people on," Grzelakowski says. "These are going to be your high performers when they come back."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University